Western Africa has produced some of the most celebrated musicians of the continent. There music has an important role in society, and musicians are considered not only for their personal ability, but by their lineage also. This is why West African musicians are eager to show they come from a line of great musicians and griots. Dawda Jobarteh is no exception. The young kora player – he was born in 1976 – is the grand nephew of Alhaji Bai Konte (1920-83), the most celebrated kora player of his time whose recordings remain the benchmark against which young players are measured even today. Jobarteh’s father, Amadou Bansang Jobarteh, and his uncles Malamini Jobarteh and Dembo Konte, were also distinguished players.
Dawda learned music at the feet of uncle Malamini, but he played the calabash, acquiring a kora only when he relocated in Denmark in 1999. In any case, music was in his blood since childhood. “When I was young – he says – I wanted to travel especially to Senegal, Guinea and Mali. To Senegal because of my love for sahar and mbalax. To Guinea because of their top djembe players. To Mali because of the fantastic acoustic music. I did not have the chance to travel. I went to Senegal and Mali after I lived in Denmark for five years”.
The result of that trip is Namo, the song found in Jobarteh latest CD, Northern Light/Gambian night, the first as a laeder. In this CD, the author follows the tradition he learnt from his family, but also gives it a twist. After all, he is also active in the Danish jazz and avant-rock scene. His ability to use tradition and innovation is seen in the CD line up, which includes backing vocalists Maria and Marie-Line Marolany, who work for Salif Keita’s band, guitarist John McLaughlin and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, electric bassists Etienne Mbappe and Linley Marthe and flautist Shashank Subrinayam, from the world/fusion scene.
Northern Light Gambian Night is an elegant recording. The music is reminiscent of the kora recording of the 1980s, with more than a trace of mbalax, which became famous thanks to artists like Youssou N’Dour. In his vocals, which are as warm as his kora playing, Jobarteh avoids mbalax’s sharp edge. The text of the songs is also worthy a note. Most songs are a challenge to the elders or the youth. The singer invites people to reflect on their role in society, the importance of commitments and traditional values. A good example is Sama Kebalu – why do you sit under the mango tree waiting for good life to fall down from heaven? – and Dinding Do which asks the listener if we do have a duty to care for the education and upbringing of a child, and if they deserve the same respect as adults or not. The CD closes with Tabara, a duet between Jobarteh and fellow kora player Toumani Diabate, which was recorded in Toumani’s courtyard in Bamako, Mali.
Dawda Jobarteh, Northern Light Gambian Night, Sterns Music, 2011.